12 August 2009

Confusable Words

In my previous blog, I mentioned the strange confusion between oral and aural. In fact, there are lots of words in English which are pronounced the same or nearly the same even though they are opposites. For example, hypertension means high blood pressure, but hypotension means low blood pressure, and although I can differentiate them, generally they would both be /haɪpətenʃn/. Bizarre!

In fact, languages often do not seem to do a very good job of differentiating words that need to be distinct. In Mandarin Chinese, 'four' 四 is (with a falling tone) while 'ten' 十 is shí (with a rising tone). Unfortunately, in much of southern China and also in Taiwan, there is no distinction between the initial sounds represented by the Pinyin letters 's' and 'sh', so these two words are only distinguished by tone. And it is usual in Taiwan to use the fingers to help indicate which number is intended, which is not so good if you are buying vegetables in the market and carrying lots of bags.

What about Malay? Does it have words that are easily confused like this? I bet it does. Anyway, I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which Malay words are easily confusable.

11 August 2009


One of the basic requirements of language is to differentiate concepts, especially things which may be confusable. So why is it that for many speakers of English (including me) oral and aural are pronounced exactly the same (i.e. they are homophones)? If I tell you that we have an /ɔ:rəl/ exam tomorrow, you have no way of telling whether it is a listening (aural) test or a speaking (oral) test.

John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (2008, p. 57) tells me that aural can be pronounced as /aʊrəl/ in order to differentiate it from oral; but the fact remains that it usually is not.

09 August 2009

Purple Haze Mondegreen

There was recently a discussion on the Language Log site of a cartoon by Jems (Language Log).
From a linguistic point of view, there are three things of interest here:
  • What does it mean?
  • Why does the title refer to Purple Haze?
  • What is a mondegreen?
First, to explain the joke: The chicken said "This guy is falling", but the other two animals mis-heard it as "The sky is falling" which is why they did not try to save the chicken.

Next, Purple Haze. This is the name of a song recorded by Jimi Hendrix in 1967. It includes the lyrics "I kiss the sky" which people often heard as "I kiss this guy". In fact, this became so well established that Jimi Hendrix actually sometimes deliberately sang it that way.

Finally, a mondegreen is a phrase that is misunderstood because it is mis-parsed. (It was coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright who, when she was young, misheard the phrase "and laid him on the green" from a poem as "and Lady Mondegreen".)

What is interesting about this is the levels of allusion − reference to something else without which you cannot understand what is going on.

I have explained it all here; but I think that the way we write stuff nowadays is being substantially influenced by the Internet. Language Log did not attempt to explain the joke, or the allusions to Jimi Hendrix, or what a mondegreen is, partly because it is assumed that readers will already know all of this, but also because it is assumed that people can easily find it out themselves. And the assumption that this kind of information is easily available at the click of a button is maybe fundamentally changing the way we represent language on the web.

I guess in reality I should not have explained the joke or the allusions!